City of Atlanta and Fulton County Announce Strategic Partnership

new development center with puzzle pieces

City of Atlanta and Fulton County Announce Strategic Partnership to Develop Center for Diversion and Services

November 05, 2021
Partnership to include Joint Justice Policy Committee Center to provide alternative to jail for people with behavioral health issues
The City of Atlanta and Fulton County have agreed to establish a Center for Diversion and Services that will provide alternatives to placing people in the County jail and City detention center who suffer from behavioral health issues. 

On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners adopted a Resolution that creates a strategic partnership with the City of Atlanta to jointly fund and develop a diversion center in Downtown Atlanta. It is scheduled to open in 2022.

The Center for Diversion and Services, known as “the Center,” will be a facility at which law enforcement officers and first responders can transport individuals who are in need of help to address problems such as mental health issues, substance abuse, and/or extreme poverty. In the past, these persons would normally be taken to a jail or detention center or a hospital emergency room. 

Peer specialists at the Center will help address immediate basic needs such as food and showers, while partner agencies will provide physical and mental health screenings, basic first aid, and connections to housing, health care and other stabilizing resources. The Center will also offer a place for sobering and offer care navigators to provide ongoing case management.

Grady Memorial Hospital and the Policing Alternatives & Diversion (PAD) program—key partners in this initiative—will help staff the Center. The City, County and Grady estimate that up to 41 people per day could be eligible for diversion from the local jails, detention facilities and Grady’s ER to the Center. 

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said: "I have long committed to thoughtful criminal justice reform, to help address the systemic issues that lead people to engage in criminal activity. This includes repurposing the Atlanta City Detention Center. By introducing diversion services to this facility, we are helping those charged with minor, non-violent offenses access the resources they need to help turn their lives around. It is equity in action and another historic step in our vision for a more equitable Atlanta.”

Fulton County District 2 Commissioner Bob Ellis said, “This is a common-sense solution that will keep many people with mental illness out of the jail and the court system, resulting in better outcomes for those residents, and a more efficient justice system.  Behavioral Health services are a critical service provided by Fulton County and we are excited about this partnership.”

Fulton County Commissioner Kadijah Abdur-Rahman said: “It has long been overdue that we started treating people who need counseling and social services like human-beings. Jails are for violent offenders and those who pose danger to the greater community. Jails are not for people who are suffering from mental disabilities or societal disorders, including homelessness.”

Rodney Bryant, Chief of Police said: “The Atlanta Police Department is committed to being a value-based, community-focused agency; therefore, we look forward to the positive impacts that the Center for Diversion and Services will provide for the City, the Atlanta Police Department and most importantly those impacted by the circumstances of life. We know that we can’t arrest our way out of crime and we welcome the opportunity to serve and work directly with the Center for Diversion and Services.  The APD will continue our efforts to be good stewards as we work together to direct people to the necessary services and resources needed to help change their lives and their outlook on life.” 

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, chair of the Justice and Mental Health Task Force, said: “The Center for Diversion and Services is an important milestone for our City and County.  First and foremost, the Center will provide critically needed resources for the most underserved members of our community: people experiencing poverty who have severe and persistent mental illness.  Second, the Center represents what we can accomplish when our City and County partners work together toward a common goal.  Finally, the Center will relieve pressure on the County’s overburdened jail, allowing the jail to focus on detaining individuals awaiting trial, rather than housing people with mental illness who need treatment and not incarceration.”

The Center will accept individuals who are diverted through Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a joint initiative of the City and County that is coordinated by PAD.  LEAD allows law enforcement officers to use their discretion to offer pre-arrest diversion to individuals who have substantial needs related to mental health, substance use or extreme poverty. People who have had multiple contacts with the criminal legal system and are at high risk for recidivism, those who are typically excluded or underserved by existing programs and those disproportionally impacted by racial disparities in policing, arrests and sentencing will be prioritized for diversion. People who are suspected of violent crimes, present a substantial risk of harm to self or others, who are under 17 years old or have pending charges will not be eligible for the diversion program.  

The Center will also welcome individuals who do not meet criteria for admission at Grady’s psychiatric emergency room but may benefit from additional care and assistance in navigating substance-abuse, housing, and mental-health resources in the community. According to Grady, 63 percent of those brought in for a psychiatric complaint do not meet criteria for involuntary admission at the hospital. 

The Center will be initially located within vacant, underutilized, space within the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC)—separated from jail operations—until a permanent facility is developed. The space earmarked for the Center is large, open, and equipped with showers, toilets and a dedicated elevator.  Renovations—estimated to take six months—will focus on creating a welcoming space.

The partnership to develop the Center for Diversion and Services is detailed in a joint Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) approved by Fulton County on Nov. 2.  The IGA was introduced at the Atlanta City Council on Oct. 18, by Council Member Joyce Sheperd, an advocate for the project. The City of Atlanta—with the help of the Georgia Power Foundation—will cover the estimated $3 million cost to build-out the Center and will split the estimated $5 million annual operating costs with Fulton County. The Georgia Power Foundation has granted $100,000 towards capital costs. 

Council Member Joyce Sheperd said: “The Center for Diversion and Services will provide the Atlanta Police Department an alternative when dealing with nonviolent and lower-level crime. It will help replace jail sentencing, while getting people the proper help that they need without entering the criminal justice system. This is crucial legislation that I am proud to have introduced and I am grateful for the collaboration among City and County leaders to get this done. The Center for Diversion and Services will create more positive outcomes and help find solutions for individuals who may need wrap-around services to resolve their issues. This is a smart step forward for our city and the citizens of Atlanta.”

Marci Tribble, Director, Emergency Psychiatric Services at Grady Health Services said: “The Center for Diversion & Services will fulfill an important gap in Atlanta’s health care infrastructure; persons living with severe mental illness in Fulton County is estimated at 50,000 uninsured residents with only 30 percent receiving care.  When these individuals can’t obtain access to care, they frequently end up in jail or Grady’s emergency department.” 

According to Fulton County, 15 percent of the Fulton County jail population screens positive for mental health issues and remains in jail twice as long (an average of 58 days).  An estimated three percent of the Fulton jail population is held on low-level charges associated with homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse, and screens positive for mental illness.  

Roughly 30 percent of the bookings into Atlanta’s detention facility are for charges associated with homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse – such as disorderly conduct and public intoxication.  “The Center for Diversion and Services provides an alternative; it will connect these individuals with community-based case management, medications, housing, benefits, and outpatient therapies in a more appropriate setting to stop the cycle,” said Tribble.

The joint Center for Diversion and Services  is modeled after successful and innovative reforms seen in many regions across the country, such as Houston, Texas. Representatives from the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, Grady, PAD and others traveled to Houston in August to visit a diversion center in Harris County. The Harris County Mental Health Diversion Center has reduced new jail stays by 50 percent for people who entered the diversion center for the first time. Further, for every dollar spent on diversion, Harris County avoided spending $5.54 on criminal justice costs. 

The idea for a Center for Diversion and Services center grew out of multiple parallel initiatives—including the Mayor’s Reimagining ACDC initiative, and Fulton County’s Justice Reform and Mental Health Task Force.

While the first step will be to develop the Center, the partnership will also focus on continuing to build a comprehensive infrastructure system, or “continuum of care,” for people with behavioral health concerns in the Atlanta metro area who frequently end up in jail.

Moki Macias, Executive Director of PAD said: “This Center represents an opportunity to expand the impact of pre-arrest diversion ten-fold – by expanding the partners involved, creating 24/7 availability, and making it easier for law enforcement and the people they divert to access the resources that will more effectively address community concerns.”

Robin Ried of Bloomberg Associates said: “This new Center is a progressive and creative solution that will provide important social services for Atlantans who may otherwise cycle through the judicial system instead of getting the support they need. We applaud the Mayor and Fulton County for leading the charge and congratulate the many incredible partners who have come together to put forward this crucial legislation. By doing so, Atlanta has created a model for other cities to follow.”